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« Fashion Focus Chicago Kicks Off With Chicago Fashion Incubator Hereafter, Tamara Drewe, Paranormal Activity 2 & The Agony and the Ecstasy of Phil Spector »

Fashion Thu Oct 21 2010

Fashion in Chicago: an interview with Alma Weiser of Renovar

Alma Weiser, the self-described "mother" of Heaven Gallery in Wicker Park, is also a local fashion designer whose inspirations range from Japanese anti-fashion designers of the 80s to the aesthetics of futurism. Her latest collection, Irregular a fashion homage by Renovar, premieres this Saturday at Heaven Gallery (1550 N Milwaukee, 2nd floor). Below, Weiser discusses her background, inspiration, goals for the future, and why a cute vintage dress dress is beneficial for more people than one would assume.

What were your inspirations?
I'm really inspired by Japanese designers. They're incredible. The work that they do is art. When I decided what I was going to do my next collection on, I just thought, "Japanese!" In the early 1980s, Japanese designers Rei Kawakubo and Yamamoto, they basically took Paris by storm. It was this whole movement that was anti-fashion. It wasn't this beautiful, form-fitting clothing anymore, showing the natural silhouette of the woman. It was more about the clothes being a second skin. It was just incredible. They came at the perfect moment. That's how movements are made. Somebody's doing something, and then that movement comes, and they're doing it simultaneously. I always admire when that happens. It's also about re-thinking your clothes, being as creative as possible as you can with the clothes. The image of Comme de Garcons is wearable art for the most thought-provoking, interesting, clothing you can think of.

What sort of things have you been inspired by in terms of your past collections?
I've done a lot of group shows but my last two shows were solo shows. I usually just pick something that's inspiring me at the moment. I have a whole bag of collections that I know I have to do, as time goes by, I grab out of that bag. I think that's part of feeling the moment, too. That's part of being the designer, too; knowing what moment is coming. Every single show is a different theme. I don't want to do the same style that pigeonholes me into "this is what she does." The way I do it now, it's going everywhere. Primarily I get my inspiration from art history or fashion history. It's always going to be art history. It's always going to be fashion history.

I already know what my next show is going to be, Louise Nevelson. She made these crazy found object sculptures. I'm going to make these incredible wool coats, with these different shapes. It's going to be really good.

Part of the whole process is that I always buy a bunch of books at the beginning of the collection. During the duration of the creation, I go and buy these books and do research. It's almost like I'm in school. I'm learning all of this stuff so it's fresh. I keep coming to it. There are clear references. So if anyone comes to the show and they know these designers, they're going to say, "Yamamoto Spring 97!" It's very well-researched and precise.

What sort of things should be people expect? Are there any surprises?
The show has a lot of hats. Junya always has incredible hats. There might be one or two that are original vintage hats and part of my personal collection. Most of them are old hats, re-worked into new hats. Some of the shapes I came up with are pretty cool. The one thing I love about a hat is that you can totally make a room silent with a hat. There's going to be a lot of cool accessories that I made out of gloves, that Kawakubo inspiration. There's a pillow dress. There's some gloves, stuffed gloves.

I'm designing all of these dresses for me. It's for my own needs that I make it. While I'm making something, I ask this selfish question: "Would you die if you saw this in the store?" If the answer is no, I don't even bother.

Did you go to school for fashion design?

I did. I went to the International Academy for Design and Technology.

Did you find that going to school was helpful in terms of executing your designs for each collection?

No. There was one instructor; I'm dedicating this show to her. School...I wasn't ready for it. I didn't take any of it so seriously. For me, it's just about experience. No one can teach you anything. It's just experience that teaches you. It was a lot of money and a lot of time. But the benefits were not as much as they are now. I wasn't ready. You find your own way, your own method, and this is all with experience. They're teaching you this way that everybody else does and you're constantly fighting it because that doesn't work for you. Then you're out of school and working and finding your own way. That's when you really start seeing some results.

I did have an instructor who I haven't seen in seven years. I was one of her favorite students. The show is really for her. When I was in school, this was how she dressed. She was very Yamamoto. She had the spirit of Comme de Garcons. She even painted a painting of herself with a Junya Watanabe neck ruffle. She really inspired me in terms of this fine art with fashion. I'm gonna put a little picture of her, the painting, on the program.

Chicago is often described as a city not into fashion. People dress more for the weather than aesthetic purposes. What ways do you agree or disagree? How are you breaking against those stereotypes?
Well, the nice thing is that it's not hard to be the best dressed. You're going to a party and it's like, "Oh, no competition." When I do go out and see women dressed well and thoughtful, it's so great. The lack of fashion does ensure a quick victory for the night. To see people on your side is pretty awesome. There's no over saturation. There's a few people carrying this fashion torch. It's more pronounced then it is in other cities. It's more for you to do, to bring out in the city. It's uncharted territory. It's not as much as in LA or New York.

You also run the monthly vintage sales here. When did that idea come about? Why did you start doing it? What has been the impact in terms of the Chicago fashion community?
We did a local designer sale here and it did okay. Harold Arts did a rummage sale here, but it went great. At the first local designer sale, I mixed some vintage in there. My stuff would move a little bit more cause it's cheaper. If you can get a cool dress for twenty bucks, who wouldn't get it? I just realized that...duh!

They fit this niche for people in Chicago. We have a lot of vintage stores but having this group sale...

It's a community. It's about knowing who you're buying from. Knowing who you're supporting. These are all local people. These are all entrepreneurs. I would much rather give my money to them than to a corporation. We all kind of feel that way, that we're losing this sense of community and of a neighborhood. It's a great feeling to go to some of these places and know the owners and buy from them. It's that old vintage style of doing something.

I would love to keep the sales going for as long as the people want. We're [Heaven Gallery] a non-for profit art space. With the vintage sales, we've found a way for the people to pay for their own art. It's great because before I got here, it was my husband who basically paid for all of these artists to perform or put up their work. Now, after 10 years, it's now the people getting the vintage paying for the work. It has a great benefit in the end. I love that you come here for one thing and you get so much more. It's really grown into it's name. I love someone coming in here and being confronted by art on so many different levels. It's all the arts coming at you. And when you come, it's such a good experience, for everyone.

Vintage is so fascinating. It has all of these lives. This mystery, this mystique, these multiple narratives that you never truly get to know. It's traveled through time and somehow finds it's way to you. It's kind of serendipitous to find something you love so much, so old. I love clothing that has memory, maybe that's why I make reconstructed vintage. It's so rich. I always feel like I'm rescuing this garment that some other era has left. The pieces that I've been working on, their mediocre to boring or frumpy. It doesn't speak to today. It's my job to take it and rehab it and make it completely now. Maybe ten years from now, somebody will take it and rehab it again.

IRREGULAR a fashion homage by Renovar takes place at Heaven Gallery, 1550 N Milwaukee, 2nd floor. Doors open at 8pm and the show begins at 9pm. Refreshments are provided and a $10 donation is suggested.

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Jenna / June 20, 2014 2:12 AM

She is a clever, thoughtful encyclopedia of knowledge. One can gleam even a fraction of her intellect and curiosity for history and design upon listening to her.

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Architecture Tue Nov 03 2015

Paul Goldberger Describes the "Pragmatism and Poetry" of Frank Gehry's Architecture in His New Book

By Nancy Bishop

Architecture critic Paul Goldberger talks about Frank Gehry's life and work in a new book.
Read this feature »

Steve at the Movies Fri Jan 01 2016

Best Feature Films & Documentaries of 2015

By Steve Prokopy

Read this column »


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